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Taking Wing

FLIGHTS OF ANGELS: Stories.\o7 By Ellen Gilchrist (Little, Brown: 336 pp., $24)\f7

November 08, 1998|MERLE RUBIN | Merle Rubin is a writer and critic who writes frequently for Book Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor

Novelist, poet and short-story writer Ellen Gilchrist made an impressive literary debut in 1981 with her book of short stories, "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams." Her 1984 collection, "Victory Over Japan," won that year's National Book Award for fiction. Since then, more than a dozen books--story collections, novels, autobiographical nonfiction--have appeared: a mixed bag, in which can be found much that is poignant, funny, charming, wry, moving, even wise, but also much that is coy, preachy, self-satisfied, well-nigh insufferable.

By and large, it seems fair to say that Gilchrist's short fiction has been stronger than her novels. And, indeed, her new collection, "Flights of Angels," contains many stories that well display her talents. Most of these 18 stories are set in the author's native South: Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina or the little town of Fayetteville, Ark., although one takes place in Los Angeles.

Some stories are linked by a common narrator. In "Miss Crystal Confronts the Past" and "A Sordid Tale, or, Traceleen Continues Talking," our cicerone, Traceleen, is the longtime housekeeper and confidante of Crystal, a middle-aged woman who's managed to break away from her old-style, male chauvinist upbringing but who can never entirely evade the pull of family ties.

Three other stories, "The Triumph of Reason," "Have a Wonderful Nice Walk" and "Witness to the Crucifixion," are narrated by Aurora Harris, a vivacious, precocious 16-year-old from Fayetteville who faces all kinds of problems, including an unplanned pregnancy, a feckless French boyfriend and a little sister, Jocelyn, who gets caught up in born-again Christianity. Gilchrist's candid treatment of her heroine's dilemma provides an interesting and refreshing contrast to the way that television routinely ducks the issue these days (try to remember the last time any character on a soap or sitcom actually had an abortion rather than a convenient miscarriage).

Indeed, Gilchrist is not one to shy away from social questions. In "Ocean Springs," an ultraliberal former college president fights to get psychiatric help for the man who raped her; while in "Mississippi," a naive young white woman's hatred of racism combines with her family's tradition of using firearms to settle scores.

Whether her subject is charmingly playful, like the eccentric Los Angeles medical clinic that gives aid and comfort to hypochondriacs in "Phyladda, or the Mind/Body Problem," or seriously scary, like "The Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor" that threatens a small community with nuclear contaminants, Gilchrist brings to each story an engaging sense of compassion and a saving sense of humor. While some of the stories may seem a little too pat and some of the narrators a little too pleased with themselves, "Flights of Angels" is on the whole a satisfying collection.

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